The Popular Purple Coneflower (Echinacea)

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The Popular Purple Coneflower (Echinacea)

Purple Coneflowers in full flower and bud.

Purple Coneflowers in full flower and bud.

Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) deserves its status as one of the most popular mainstream native wildflowers for gardens.

For starters, this native plant produces beautiful garden worthy flowers, even in its wild species form. It’s planted extensively inside and outside its native range, is represented by over 100 cultivars and hybrids in the trade, and is farmed and sold as one of the top herbal medicines. But it’s also great for wildlife as the flowers attract a diversity of pollinating insects and seeds attract birds. I’m going to refer to Purple Coneflower as Echinacea, because the common name Coneflower is used for many plants, some only distantly related. There are also several other species of Echinacea that share these wonderful traits.
Why is Echinacea so popular?
For starters, it has big, showy, long-lived flowers that bloom throughout summer and into autumn here in Pennsylvania. The flowers are a beautiful focal point in a perennial garden. Next, it is an undemanding perennial that doesn’t require specialty gardening knowledge. It’s tolerant of a range of conditions including a hot sunny area with occasional drought as well as moist partly shaded areas. From a design perspective, it’s a good companion plant in a perennial garden. Also, it doesn’t require fussy maintenance. In fact, its value for wildlife is diminished if you deadhead or cut the plants back. Lastly, while beneficial wildlife demonstrate its popularity, few destructive pests bother it. (Hungry rabbits or other rodents in the spring may trim it.)
Enjoy the 3 slideshows included in this blog: Echinacea in the Garden, Echinacea Flower Variety, and Echinacea Wildlife.
Echinacea in the Garden Slideshow
Click on an image to activate a slideshow with titles and captions.
Straight Species Flower Variety
In our meadow, we planted seed of straight species or “wild” plants. A typical Echinacea flower head displays large magenta petals that droop and a semi-spherical cone with tubular florets that start green at the base and go to orange and red tipped. However, Echinacea petal color can range in the wild from magenta to white while the size, shape, and the way the petals are held also varies. The cone shape and its color can vary too. In our yard, one of the stranger variants exhibits quilled petals. See the Echinacea Flower Variety slide show for photos of variants in our meadow and garden.
The Complex Flower Head
An Echinacea flower is just a cone and petals, right? Wrong! With macro photos of insects I get close looks inside the cone to see the complex parts. As it turns out, one of these cones has somewhere between 250 to 300 micro-flowers! Each individual flower (floret) has a modified bract – that’s the spike in the cone. The flowers bloom in rings from outer edge to center. The “anther phase” lasts for about a day. Look for the bright star of yellow pollen on the anther. Then the flower transitions to the red recurved “stigma phase”. Nectar is buried deep at the base of the floret. Look for these parts in macro photos in the slide shows.
Cultivars and Hybrids
With the popularity of Purple Coneflowers, the horticultural trade noticed. Growers take advantage of unique wild plants and clone them to enhance certain traits. These are cultivars. In our patio garden we planted two cultivars 20 years ago – ‘Magnus‘ and ’White Swan‘. Those original plants are long gone and have been replaced by multiple generations of reseeded “wild” plants. So what’s the difference? It’s a bit tricky, but usually cultivars are produced using cloning methods. However, when a new plant is grown from the seed of a cultivar, it will usually revert to a wilder state, although it may retain traits of the parent (there are exceptions of course!) Growers also cross breed plants using different species to produce a wider range of colors and traits. The hybrids are usually sterile, thus unable to reproduce by seed.
A special note here– cultivars and hybrid plants are “improved” for humans - NOT wildlife. Many of them have significantly less pollen or aren’t otherwise recognized by pollinators. For example, the double flower varieties (pom-poms) don’t have available nectar or pollen. A primary benefit of planting natives is to support wildlife – so stick to straight species or cultivars demonstrated to retain high wildlife traits. Add a special cultivar for fun as an accent, but know that it is strictly for you.
Echinacea Flower Variety Slideshow
Click on an image to activate a slideshow with titles and captions.
Wildlife on Echinacea?
Pollen and nectar are the star attractions that bring a large variety of wildlife – big and small – to Echinacea. Butterflies use their long tongues to sip the nectar buried at the base of the individual flowers. Bees, flower flies, and beetles work their way around each cone to access the individual flowers that are producing pollen. Then they fly from head to head, spreading pollen across plants to complete pollination. But there is also danger in paradise. Predatory insects like assassin bugs and spiders use the flowers to hunt insect prey. Still other insects await hosts they will parasitize. Beyond being a food source, insects like the bumble bee in the photo may spend the night under petals or leaves.
Don’t cut off those flower heads!
Our goldfinches can’t wait for the flowers to set seed. They start checking out the cones in July. Whatever our local goldfinches don’t finish, migrating birds (including siskins) will devour. Sparrows, cardinals and other species clean up the scattered seed on the ground (except for a few seeds that sprout the following spring). The cone heads and plants also provide structure and protection over the winter. We wait until spring to cut back the prior year’s growth and “weed” new volunteer plants that become too numerous.
Echinacea Wildlife Slideshow
Click on an image to activate a slideshow with titles and captions.
A Footnote on Native Plants
There is much disagreement over what makes a plant “native” to a specific geography and even how that designation is determined. After consulting multiple sources, I learned that there is disagreement as to whether Echinacea purpurea is native to my state of Pennsylvania. I have never found it in the wild here, but then Echinacea is under threat from people collecting it for its herbal uses. A possible explanation is that Echinacea had a limited range in Midwestern prairies, and then over centuries or millennia before Europeans arrived, Native Americans expanded its range through cultivation because of its medicinal qualities. We’ll never know.

What is certain is that the native wildlife that I’m trying to protect in my yard, recognize and use this plant extensively. It is popular! Echinacea is complementary to other native wildflowers in Pennsylvania and adds a beautiful splash of color to our garden.

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